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Holistic Nursing: Alternative Care as a Specialty Practice

Alternative health care is on the rise in the United States, and some nurses are embracing a practice that incorporates a mind-and-body approach to patient care. While alternative treatment as an element of nursing practice is a trend that has yet to gain significant public recognition, the idea that health care can involve more than just treating symptoms as they appear is gaining traction.

As the costs of traditional health care continue to grow, the health care industry and the government have begun to see the value of focusing on disease prevention. Wellness practices and healthy behaviors continue to be promoted as important parts of self-care. Complementary and alternative modalities (CAM), which are defined as treatments that generally do not fall within traditional western medicine, have become more widely accepted. Examples of CAM include meditation and massage therapy.

There’s proof beyond the popularity of acupuncture and yoga classes. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 30 percent of American adults use CAM therapies.1 Another frequently cited study found that over 630 million Americans spent $12.2 billion out-of-pocket for these resources from 1993 to 1997, and estimated the trend to continue over the following several decades. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 included several provisions that will guide policy toward health care that incorporates alternative and complementary therapies.2

CAM therapies fall under the umbrella of holistic health, or holism. Holism involves recognizing the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit; the unique nature and needs of each individual; and the body’s power to heal itself. The American Holistic Nurses’ Association defines holistic nursing as a “nursing practice that has healing the whole person as its goal.” Holistic nurses still use and promote conventional treatments, but take an integrative approach to patient care, combining traditional evidence-based practice with CAM according to each patient’s particular situation, lifestyle, and needs.

In December of 2006, the holistic nursing specialty practice was officially recognized by the American Nurses Association (ANA) as a nursing specialty with a defined scope and standards of practice. Certifications include Holistic Nurse-Board Certified (HN-BC), Holistic Baccalaureate Nurse-Board Certified (HNB-BC), and Advanced Holistic Nurse-Board Certified (AHN-BC). Founded in 1981, today the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA) has over 5,400 members, is accredited by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, publishes the Journal of Holistic Nursing, and promotes many continuing education initiatives and programs.

Holistic nurses can practice in a variety of settings, from independent practices to hospitals. Many work for facilities or businesses that integrate CAM with traditional medical care. Some gain certification or licensure in other alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or reflexology. They promote self-care and the importance of diet, exercise, and relaxation as essential elements of total-body wellness and healing alongside more conventional treatments and therapies.

As holistic nursing and CAM move into the mainstream, health care professionals are taking to political and professional arenas to advocate for laws and policies that support holistic goals such as wellness, health promotion, and disease prevention. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, works with professional organizations and government agencies to disseminate high-quality and in-depth information to consumers and the public.3 Nurses and other health care professionals are also working to dispel myths and misconceptions about holistic care among the public as well as other their industry colleagues, presenting it as an effective, respected, accepted, and valuable approach.

Holistic nursing can be a fulfilling avenue for nurses who wish to deepen their practice with their patients. The online nursing programs at the University of Saint Mary can be an important step toward building the foundational knowledge on which a holistic nursing career rests. To learn more about the online MSN, call 877-307-4915 to speak with an admissions advisor or request more information.


1 National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health,

2 “Current Trends in Holistic Nursing” by Carla Mariano, in Holistic Nursing: A Handbook for Practice,

3 National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “Exploring the Science of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Third Strategic Plan 2011-2015.”